Lobbyists feel crunch in post-shutdown session

Lobbyists feel crunch in post-shutdown session
© Greg Nash

Lobbyists are bracing their clients for a short legislative calendar, worrying there is little time to tackle their top priorities after a record-long government shutdown, with new deadlines ahead and the 2020 election quickly approaching.

“[The shutdown] backed the calendar up into 2019 more than normal,” a lobbyist told The Hill. “Congress has until Halloween ... Thanksgiving to get any legislative vehicle done unless [they] attach it to an omnibus at the end of the year.”

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Others predicted an even tighter time crunch with the presidential election already drawing candidates and attention. 

“We are probably in a sprint to the August recess. The election cycle will start probably in August in earnest. Obviously you’re seeing candidates announce earlier and earlier,” Darrell Conner, co-leader of K&L Gates’s public practice, told The Hill. “After August, it’s kind of an uncertain future.”

The shutdown pushed back priorities for both the Democratic House and GOP Senate as lawmakers spent weeks passing dueling funding measures.

Now, as both parties look to restart, they face the potential for another shutdown in less than three weeks, when the short-term spending measure that reopened the government expires. And there are other items on the agenda that will take priority before Congress can tackle other issues.

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“You immediately have to get to debt limit and spending caps in March. And then you have the six, seven, eight months of potential legislating,” Arjun Mody, a principal at S-3 Group, said.

“There are certain things that you just have to get done,” he continued, citing a highway bill expiring at the end of 2020 and work to delay the medical device tax and the health insurance tax. 

The State of the Union address, now expected in February, was also delayed by the shutdown fight.

“The State of the Union is usually a table-setter,” Mody said.

Lobbyists said they expected work on a number of important issues across industries. The health care world is anticipating action on drug prices, while tech companies are eager to sway the debate over data privacy legislation. 

While neither of those items are on Congress’s must-do list, both could see action before 2020 slows work. Lobbyists predicted a privacy bill could come out of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and that the upper chamber could see drug pricing legislation from Sens. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending On The Money: Judge upholds House subpoena for Trump financial records | Trump vows to appeal ruling by 'Obama-appointed judge' | Canada, Mexico lift retaliatory tariffs on US | IRS audit rate falls Canada, Mexico lift tariffs on US goods after Trump scraps steel, aluminum levies MORE (R-Iowa) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenIRS audit rate down in fiscal 2018 Oregon man sentenced after threatening to chop off Dem senator's tongue House to vote on retirement bill next week MORE (D-Ore.).

To complicate matters, K Street expects to be playing defense more frequently in 2019 for industry clients, with House Democrats touting an ambitious oversight agenda. That could further hamper lobbyists’ efforts to take up issues important to their clients.

House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine WatersMaxine Moore WatersDemocrats are running out of stunts to pull from impeachment playbook Maxine Waters: Trump 'has done everything that one could even think of to be eligible for impeachment' Maxine Waters: Parts of Trump immigration plan are 'very racist' MORE (D-Calif.) “has been waiting for the gavel for decades,” Mody said.

“She has an agenda. The chairmen that the House has, they’re serious and they’re going to want to legislate in addition to their oversight. [Lobbyists] have to work with them,” he added. 

Waters is already teeing up hearings on Deutsche Bank and Equifax as she vows to toughen scrutiny on the financial industry, while energy and tech companies have to prepare to answer to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr.Frank Joseph PalloneMcConnell, Kaine introduce bill to raise tobacco purchasing age from 18 to 21 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition - Restrictive state abortion laws ignite fiery 2020 debate Work on surprise medical bills goes into overdrive MORE (D-N.J.) on a host of issues. 

A divided Congress also has some lobbyists downplaying the chances lawmakers will get much done.

“I just don’t see that they’re going to be able to do so much this year. I think there’ll be a lot of breathlessness and a lot of ‘oh shit, there’s a hearing on this.’ ‘Oh crap, there’s a draft on that,’ ” a lobbyist told The Hill. “But the partisan splits and the calendar, it doesn’t bode well for productivity.”

The anxiety about the year ahead builds on the frustration many on K Street felt during the shutdown, which left lobbyists unable to move on many of their clients’ priorities for weeks.

Mody found the “most disruptive part” was on clients with work in front of the administration. 

He mentioned, for instance, the delays on tax rules at the Treasury Department and the wait for regulatory feedback from the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, for example, was shut down along with about 25 percent of the federal government, leaving alcohol and tobacco companies unable to sell new seasonal beers and other products that did not have approved labels.

With the government open again, many lobbyists will need to play catch up.

Back on Capitol Hill, one of the first big tests for the new Congress will be the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement deal, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The deal was signed in November, setting off a six-month deadline for Congress to approve the pact. It’s a top priority for many industries.

Lobbyists are watching closely to see whether the trade deal can pass the Democratic House. 

“The White House is going to come out of this shutdown with USMCA as their top priority. The pathway to it passing the Senate is pretty good but can the House Democrats pass it?” a lobbyist said. “That’s going to be a good test frame on whether this Congress can get things done or are they going to … for lack of a better term, resist.”

Getting the deal through Congress would be a big political win for President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE ahead of 2020. 

The lobbyist questioned if House Democrats’ approach would be, “We’re not going to do anything to help you because we’re in this presidential cycle.”

Lobbyists who spoke to The Hill also pointed to the 2020 election adding to the pressure to move quickly on legislative priorities. For many, the election is already taking attention from Congress.

The number of office holders saying they are running for president is “almost breathtaking,” Marc Lampkin, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck’s government relations department chairman, told The Hill.

“It seems like with so many people so quickly coming out of the gate, it just … brings it into 2019 and closer,” he said. 

“I would advise clients if you’ve got things that are really urgent, I think to get on the field sooner rather than later … so the political winds don’t change your trajectory.”

Christopher Armstrong, lobbyist at Holland & Knight, said it is important to target areas where bipartisan action is possible.   

“I would talk to both chambers. On specific topics that have the possibility of a bipartisan agreement … like narrow tax issues, IRS reform, infrastructure, flood insurance or health care prices, I would engage both Houses early and often,” Armstrong added.

But Conner warned that time will be short once the Democratic presidential primary really kicks in.

“Congress may be relegated to just do the noncontroversial stuff and some of the messaging items,” he said.